NASA Ames Research Center  + Visit the NASA portal Site Accessibility Notes
 Air Transportation Problem

Response to:
Austin High School -- Team 2

Katharine Lee
Assistant Branch Chief,
Terminal Area
Air Traffic Management Research Branch
Ames Research Center

Austin Team 2:

Can you think of a way to help an airline with their passengers, such that they don't have so many planes that are only half-full of passengers?

Communication: We do have radar that the air traffic controllers use to keep track of the aircraft. They communicate with the planes by voice, using radios. We run into problems when it gets very busy, and the air traffic controllers have many aircraft to talk to at once. Can you think of ways to make this communication easier?

Landings: Landings can be a problematic phase of flight, but not because of the potential for losing control or crashing into buildings (all of which are extremely rare). Sometimes problems arise on the surface of the airport because some planes are landing just when other planes need to take off, and there's quite a bit of traffic congestion on runways and taxiways. Sometimes, the air traffic controllers in the tower might have a hard time managing these aircraft at night or in very bad weather because it's hard to see the aircraft and know exactly which one is doing what. Can you think of ways to help manage aircraft in this situation?

Richard Mogford
Manager, Human Measures and Performance Project
Ames Research Center

You have raised most of the important issues when trying to figure out how to improve air transportation.

Your point about fuel is really good. Given that the world demand for fuel is increasing, and that it is getting more expensive to find and extract fossil fuels, the cost of fuel is a real factor! Can you do a little research on alternatives, such as hydrogen? Is it practical to use on a large airplane?

A problem with building more airplanes is that, yes, we could carry more passengers and improve capacity in the system. But kind of like cars on the road, we would have more traffic jams eventually. How can we avoid this problem? This is something we spend a lot of time thinking about.

We are trying to do this in another way in our Small Aircraft Transportation System project where we are suggesting to make use of small airplanes operating out of small regional airports. This would help relieve some of the pressure on larger airports. See this web site:

It is difficult to build new airports because of all of the environmental and other issues. It is also very costly and no one wants to have a new, noisy airport in their back yard!

There are many measures being taken to prevent terrorist attacks, as you know. But you are correct in that people will continue to use air travel as long as they see that it is safe.

Competition between the airlines has already changed the economics to some degree, and it may be that a few more airlines will go out of business. But some competition is good in that it keeps prices down. The government will probably not intercede in the free market and try to reduce the number of airlines. The economy will adjust to the demand for air travel. I think business pressures will also tend to make more airplanes full with passengers as time goes by. The airlines lose money on half-full airplanes! Likewise, they need to do good maintenance to keep passengers flying on their airlines, as you suggest.

There is a system on airplanes now called the Traffic Alert/Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) that prevents collisions. See this web site:

Good cockpit design and human factors help the pilots do their job well.

Many aircraft systems, such as the landing gear, are controlled by hydraulic systems. But your are correct in that landings and take offs are the most hazardous parts of the flight. However, the airplanes we have now are very well made and very reliable and there are not as many mechanical failures as in the past.

One thing you might do with your suggestions is to take a look at some of the information on the web sites above and at:

Perhaps you could prioritize your ideas that you have provided and show us those that would specifically focus on improving capacity in the air transportation system. Good maintenance and safety are important, but which ideas on your list would help move more people and airplanes safely and quickly? Is there something else we could be doing that we have not considered?

We'll look forward to more of your thoughts.

 FirstGov  NASA
Curator: Allison Pasciuto
NASA Official: Mark León
Last Updated: January 2005
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